THE FUTURE OF FITNESS
Welcome to the World of Hyper-Fit Golfers
Advances in performance technology are fundamentally changing how the game’s best players train and recover. And there are lessons for the rest of us
By Matthew Rudy - July 30, 2019
Phil Mickelson’s naked, middle-age calves probably aren’t the bellwether of a new era in golf, but they make for a pretty good avatar.
Mickelson, now 49, almost broke Twitter in February when he took advantage of the PGA Tour’s relaxed new rule allowing shorts during practice rounds. Flashing the sculpted calves he built with an ambitious home-gym routine, Mickelson fully embraced his unlikely new role as the poster boy for golfers as athletes.
But beyond all the chuckles, tongue-in-cheek workout videos and memes, Mickelson’s late-career quest to hold onto his trademark power game is one more piece of evidence that seems to prove what looks like an unassailable truth.
In sports, speed wins—and the business of getting more of it (or, like Mickelson, trying to keep it) is big business.
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Whether you’re a 44-time PGA Tour winner, aspiring pro or weekend player, the quest for speed comes in two components: training and recovery. Sam Snead might have produced the game’s best golf physique in the 1950s by hiking up and down the hills on his Virginia farm, but athletes now have the information and technology to train (and eat) like space-age Olympians. Whereas Snead-era players were mostly limited to hitting the showers after a day of work, the modern player can use everything from a $30 wrist dongle to a $24,000 home hyperbaric chamber to optimize rest and recovery to avoid injuries and stay competitive deeper into a lucrative career.
“The medicines, the fitness knowledge in all these areas—we’re able to take advantage of them and get our bodies to function much more efficiently and to recover faster,” says Mickelson, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars to outfit his home gym with an array of training and recovery devices. “There’s no question it takes a lot of work. It’s not something that happened overnight. But with it, there’s no reason I can’t stay competitive longer.”
Even though he’s close to qualifying for his senior-citizen discount, Mickelson is within a half mile per hour of his clubhead speed as a 37-year-old in 2007, and at 121.4 miles per hour, he’s within a half mile per hour of notable young bombers Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Tony Finau. And thanks to improved club and ball optimization, Mickelson’s ball speed and driving distance are higher than they were 12 years ago.
“How do you stay relevant in golf? You need speed,” says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Dave Phillips, who has helped certify nearly 24,000 instructors and fitness professionals in 63 countries through his TPI training program. “If you’re hitting a 6-iron from the middle of the fairway, and I’m hitting a 60-degree wedge, I’m going to win—even if I’m in the rough. I played with Phil last week, and his ball speed was 189 miles per hour. Because he’s working on speed, he’s going to continue to be a threat. He’s training like an athlete, not a golfer.”
Mickelson paired an elaborate strength-and-flexibility regimen from trainer Sean Cochran with a comprehensive biomechanical analysis of his body and swing to make sure he can extract as much as he can out of his body while reducing his risk of getting hurt. That process might have taken the dedicated resources of the entire Russian-government sports program when Ivan Drago was doing it in “Rocky IV” in the mid-1980s, but today players can get a NASA-level look under the hood simply by driving down the Long Island Expressway and spending a couple hundred dollars on a golf lesson.
At 49, Mickelson’s clubhead speed is within half a mile per hour of bombers Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Tony Finau, and thanks to optimization, his ball speed and distance are higher than they were 12 years ago.
Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Michael Jacobs worked with a mechanical-engineering professor and robotics researcher to invent an algorithm that maps the forces and torques at work in the body and club using a 3-D motion-capture suit. After three or four swings in Jacobs’ Manorville, N.Y., studio—which has more than $100,000 in research-grade technology—players can see exactly where their swing speed is hitting a traffic jam and get a lesson to restore the flow.
“We can see how much every player can generate—their potential horsepower, so to speak,” Jacobs says. “Some players have way more potential than others, and some win majors even though they have less potential than somebody else because they get closer to their peak. My job is to extract as much of that potential as possible but in a way that lets the player reproduce it when it matters.”
Mickelson said that going through a similar biometric analysis of his swing helped him understand the way various muscles needed to fire to produce maximum speed. Then it was a matter of training appropriately to increase speed and support the new speed with enough muscle for stability. The calves might look good on Twitter, but they actually have a job to do.
Players in their 40s and 50s trying to hold on to the glory days are prime candidates for this kind of swing analysis, but the real growth market is in building “kinetically aware” players from scratch. Jacobs has been working with one Chinese player since he was an 85-pound 11-year-old who was shooting in the 80s. This spring, that player—16-year-old Marlon Chen—won the China Amateur Open, that country’s most prestigious amateur event. “You’ll hear people talk about how ‘tech’ teaching is too complicated and is messing players up,” Jacobs says. “It certainly can when it’s applied incorrectly. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Marlon barely spoke English until this year. We spent three years basically communicating with visuals, and he got it. ‘Here’s how you push and pull on the club, and there are the body movements that match or don’t match. This is causing what you do.’ There’s no more wasting time going down the wrong roads.”
Mark Blackburn divides his time between his academy at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Alabama and the tour, where the Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher works with players like Chez Reavie, Kevin Chappell and Mike Weir. Blackburn says the explosion of information available to elite players about their swings and bodies has transformed the way the tour looks—literally and figuratively. “Just take a look at the headcount,” he says. “Start with the players. Do you see many of them that aren’t fit? Next, look at the number of people almost every player has on his team. Seems like almost everyone coming out now has a swing coach, a short-game coach, a nutrition person, a fitness person. There’s real-time information about everything, and no more hocus-pocus. Because that data is always available, the player is much more impatient. They want to see results right away.”
Phillips likens the modern tour player to a Formula 1 race-car driver, who is at the center of a multimillion-dollar operation staffed with experts tasked with extracting every second of speed. “Every aspect of a player is monitored—body, nutrition, what they need to be doing on their off weeks,” Phillips says. “You hear people say equipment is what has made players so long, but equipment has always evolved. What has changed most is how technology has allowed players to optimize their movement patterns—and you can train them so they don’t break down as frequently.”
That attitude extends to the PGA Tour Champions circuit, where 50-and-older players like Scott McCarron have seen how far somebody like Bernhard Langer can extend his prime earning years by embracing training and fitness. McCarron doesn’t travel with the entourages Blackburn and Phillips describe, but he uses a WHOOP fitness-tracking armband in ways that go far beyond counting the number of steps he takes from the cart to his ball. “The WHOOP measures my sleep and strain—how much stress I’m putting on my body,” says McCarron, who has won 11 times as a senior. “I’m so much more cognizant of sleep than I was when I was younger. If you have too much strain during the day and then you go work out hard, your body isn’t ready for that. With the WHOOP, I can go to the gym and match where I am with my body with one of the routines I get from my trainer.”
By using data from the armband—which links to McCarron’s smartphone and measures resting heart rate, heart-rate variability and sleep quality for about $30 a month—and a rotating set of specific workouts from his trainer, McCarron has been able to change his practice routines from 200-ball marathons to more directed 70- or 80-ball sessions mixed with an elaborate stretching program. “I’m going in with a plan instead of just beating balls for hours,” McCarron says. “I’ll hit a lot fewer balls, but hit every one of them with my full routine. I’m looking for progress, not just putting in the time.”
Players have been filling their home gyms with weight machines, elliptical machines and treadmills for decades, but recovery devices that have been staples in NFL, NBA and professional-soccer training facilities are becoming more common. Tiger Woods had a hyperbaric chamber installed in his house in 2010 and used its pressurized, oxygen-rich environment to reduce inflammation in his chronically injured back and knees. Mickelson’s exercise room features a Bemer magnetic platform and a full-body infrared-light therapy bed. The Bemer bed produces a low-intensity magnetic field that is supposed to help improve circulation and cell regeneration. Infrared beds are designed to stimulate muscle repair and reduce inflammation by projecting infrared light deep below the skin.
Hyperbaric chambers of the caliber Woods and other athletes have installed run more than $20,000 and are big and comfortable enough for an athlete to sleep all night inside—something NFL players have been doing for years to speed up post-game healing. The best infrared beds can cost $60,000 (which means amortizing each 30-minute biweekly treatment will take a long time), and a Bemer bed goes for about $6,000. But there are plenty of recovery options that don’t require the budget for a new car.
Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and other tour players travel with portable NormaTec leg sleeves, which attach to a small plug-in pump that inflates the sleeves. The constricting action helps flush lactic acid from the muscles to get fresh blood circulating sooner, which reduces muscle soreness. A set of NormaTec sleeves starts at about $1,300—about the same price as a twosome would pay for tee times and caddies at Pebble Beach. If you were able to spy on a player’s post-round routine, you’d likely see NormaTec sleeves and a session with a trainer wielding a $350 Hypervolt tool—essentially an electric jackhammer that pounds on muscles like a masseuse that never needs a break.
“Anything that increases the movement of oxygenated blood can be a lifesaver for an athlete—even simple things like alternating between cold and hot baths, like they’ve been doing in Europe for centuries,” Phillips says. “We’ve learned from the sports with brutal schedules—like the Premier League, where they can be playing three or four games per week by the end of a long season. The elite players know and are taking advantage of these things—whether it’s knowledge or technology—and you’re seeing them start to filter down to regular players now.”
As complicated as the human body is, it’s still a machine, and plenty of mechanics have figured out how to get it to work extremely well. The last frontier—for performance and recovery—is the mind. Charley Hoffman might have looked like he was chilling to some relaxing tunes with his chunky headset during practice at the Masters, but the Halo headphones he was wearing are actually a sophisticated neuro-training tool tested by the Navy SEALs to speed up the retention of new information. The $350 headset uses low-level electrical stimulation to get the brain’s neurons to fire faster so that the neural pathways required to learn new information get formed more quickly. In basic terms, it means wearing the headset while learning a new motion (or a new language) can help a wearer pick up the new information more quickly.
“That’s the next piece of this optimization stuff,” Phillips says. “The tech is three or four years off, but we’re going to be able to stimulate electrically, audibly or with vibration, and change motor patterns. It will essentially hack the learning process by changing the way you respond.”
Fast-forward to 2027, when Pebble Beach next hosts the U.S. Open. Mickelson will have turned 57 the day before the first round. With the right gadgets, plenty of yoga and a neurologically reprogrammed putting stroke, he might be getting one more chance to take down that last elusive major championship.